Writing Men: Charlie Brown

My last two Writing Men segments where I sat down and analyzed the application of male writing techniques in actual characters I started by introducing the character. I’m not going to do that this time because Charlie Brown is one of the most well-established comic strip characters in existence, in part because Charles Schultz was a genius and in part because Charlie Brown owns Snoopy, everyone’s favorite beagle. If, by some inconceivable circumstance, you don’t know who he is (yet still understand written English) you can read Peanuts, Schultz’ life work, here.

While Schultz’s Peanuts has many characters, some of whom are arguably more recognizable than Charlie Brown (namely Snoopy and Woodstock), Charlie Brown is undoubtedly the main character and he’s an interesting study in writing a male character for two reasons. First, he undergoes little noticeable character arc beyond a few small changes in his characterization in the first couple of years as Schultz nailed down exactly what roles he wanted everyone in the cast to fill. Second, Charlie Brown is a perennial failure.

It is that second attribute that makes studying Charlie Brown as a well written man so interesting. He never wins baseball games. He never gets the girl – or even gets within talking distance most times! Not even his own dog respects him. Yet he is, in his own way, iconic.

Now before we begin, I know that Charlie Brown is technically somewhere between six and eight years old. But one of the things that makes Peanuts brilliant is that its characters, while technically young, are also ageless in the issues they confront. None of the problems these “kids” face ever really go away, we just pretend that we’re over them and hope no one calls us out on the act. So I think analyzing them is a valid move. I also recognize that daily comic strips like Peanuts rarely have cohesive stories or overarching narratives. But Peanuts was written for over fifty years by a single man – there’s a level of clear, single minded character building in it that you will find nowhere else.

So what distinctly masculine traits define Charlie Brown?

Well the biggest one has to be his objective – Charlie Brown wants to be successful. Whether it’s at baseball, kite flying or romance, Charlie Brown wants to succeed. Not succeed well, per se, just succeed. Win one baseball game. Keep his kite out of the tree. Talk to the redheaded girl. While Charlie Brown is too young to have a clear idea of what succeeding at these things will do for him he definitely knows that they are things he wants to succeed at. Success will make him feel better about himself and make him look better in the eyes of others and this is definitely something he wants.

The second most notable masculine behavior of Charlie Brown is how much time he spends alone. Before the baseball game, trying to work out a strategy. After the game, lamenting his loss and trying to figure out why. At lunch, staring at the redheaded girl in agony, thinking of and rejecting hundred of different ways to approach her. Few characters spend more time in analytical self-reflection than Charlie Brown and none I can think of are as likable while doing it. Yes, most of his time alone is very self-critical but perhaps that’s to be expected – he so rarely succeeds.

His existence in a perpetual failstate lets him show an unusual side of compartmentalization. While Charlie Brown fails frequently he’s often accused of never learning – he’s always optimistic about his chances the next time around. I’m not sure this is fair. It’s true that Charlie Brown fails at the same task repeatedly but he never fails in quite the same way, showing incredible persistence as he locks away the pain of previous failures and presses forward towards his goal once again. Of course in it’s own way it also shows the two-edged nature of compartmentalization. Charlie Brown does have to suffer failure over and over again, after all. But then, I wonder, is that really any worse than simply living with one failure you never followed up on your entire life?

Axioms and sacrifice are not common parts of Charlie Brown’s life, one of the few concessions to his young age, but we do see him loyally putting up with a great deal of grief from his friends and even his dog simply because they are the people in his neighborhood who he expects to live much of his life around (at least for the next few years). The biggest gap in his character is a lack of a mentor. While Charlie Brown speaks of his father in very admiring terms Schutz’ approach to writing the strip precluded putting actual adults in the picture so there was very little chance for such a character to show up in Charlie Brown’s life.

Taken on the whole Charlie Brown is an excellent male character, one who manages to hit all the notes we can reasonably expect in a way that makes him fun and memorable. He also shows that male stereotypes and writing men don’t have to be the same thing. Very little about Charlie Brown is typical of male characters – he’s a timid, shy, naïve loser who’s best efforts towards success have left him at the bottom of the heap. At the same time he’s a man who sticks to his principles and who’s friends can’t bring themselves to turn their backs on him, no matter how frustrating he can be, because of the strength of his character. Just because his story unfolded at the top speed of four panels a day doesn’t mean he’s not a great example of how to write men.

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